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The Michael Morton Act — What it Means for You

Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murder for the 1986 slaying of his wife, Christine, spent 25 years in a Texas prison before being exonerated and released in 2011 as a result of DNA testing. Many people would probably be surprised to learn that Texas leads the nation with 117 people having been exonerated of crimes that they were charged with and did not commit.

About a month back, Governor, Rick Perry, officially signed off on the Michael Morton Act in an effort to reduce the number of people in Texas that are wrongfully convicted of crimes that they did not commit. As soon as the bill was signed, many news stations, newspapers, and local blogs reported that this was a huge victory for integrity and fairness in the Texas judicial system. But, what does this law mean for ordinary people like you who may be facing criminal charges in the State of Texas?

Closed File vs. Open File Policies in Collin County, Texas

The landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with any evidence in the State’s possession that is “material either to the defendant’s guilt or to the defendant’s punishment.” However, from a practical standpoint, it can be quite frightening to learn what many prosecutors consider (or don’t consider) exculpatory evidence, or evidence that is favorable to the defendant.

Luckily, Collin County, among many other counties, long ago adopted an “open file” policy concerning the evidence in the State’s possession that it intends to use against a person who is charged with a criminal offense. This means that, as a criminal defense attorney, I can go directly to the prosecutor who is handling my client’s case and informally obtain police reports, witness statements, video recordings, and other evidence that is in their possession.

Unfortunately, some counties and prosecuting offices (heh ’em, cough, cough…Plano Municipal Court) operate on a “closed file” system. Essentially, this means that the prosecutor will fight me tooth and nail when I try to obtain the evidence against my client that they have in their possession. Without having a chance to look at the evidence and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, defendants are basically bullied into pleading guilty. And, as a defense attorney, it’s somewhat difficult to negotiate a favorable plea bargain when I’m left in the dark about my own case. The State has the investigating and arresting officers’ written reports, audio recordings of conversations involving the defendant, video recordings of the initial detention and subsequent arrest, witnesses’ oral and written statements, 911 tapes, and lab analysis reports while I have to simply rely on my client’s memory and account of the circumstances, statements, and events which occurred approximately 6 months ago when the client was frightened, intimidated, and possibly intoxicated. See the problem?

The Michael Morton Act Mandates a Statewide Open File Policy

The Michael Morton Act remedies this problem by requiring prosecutors to give defense attorneys any evidence that is relevant to the defendant’s case. This ensures that prosecutors are unable to bully people who have been charged with a crime into accepting a plea deal by hiding and suppressing key facts that could affect their decision to accept the deal or exercise their right to a jury trial. Should you have any questions about the Michael Morton Act, please feel free to contact me at (972) 372-4054.